Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Who works for us?

So he said, "I am Abraham's servant." 
(Genesis 24:34, NRSV)

As Revised Common Lectionary preachers continue to work through the multi-generational family history of Genesis, this week we meet an unnamed servant of Abraham who is tasked with a dynasty-making errand, to find a bride for Isaac. I’ve read this story many times, and my reflections on it in the past were more familial and less political. We can see the fairy tale element in it. The “right” young woman is at the well, and in the end, she will marry a man who loves her and who, though not a literal prince, is the heir to our faith heritage. And they lived happily ever after… (until next Sunday). I am also influenced by my friend and colleague the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney‘s reading of the story in Womanist Midrash, particularly her description of Rebekah’s strong character nurtured in a matrilineal culture. Her family sends her with Abraham’s servant only after she consents to go. (v. 58)

We find systems of social status in this long ago story that still exist. The meeting at the well with Rebekah is told twice, once as it happens and then in this retelling by the servant. The segments of chapter 24 chosen by the lectionary minimize Rebekah’s experience and focus instead on a negotiation promoting the profile of the father of the potential groom by highlighting his wealth. The rich man’s son doesn’t have to travel and be put at risk. A servant will bargain for his bride.

Isaac is a son of privilege.

Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing protests against racial injustice point us toward interrogating privilege, both Isaac’s and ours. Who works for us? Whose work supports us and our way of living? Who goes out into the world and risks life and health so that we have what we want? This angle will feel different if you have essential workers in your congregation. They are like the servant who travels to get what his master wants. 

Next week this system of privilege will come to us again in the struggle between Jacob and Esau. I am having a staycation and won’t be writing text reflections for July 12, but I encourage you to read those texts, too, with our current times in mind. The struggle between the two brothers is the same conflict at the root of our sin of racism. Where there is jealousy and competition there is a fear that there will not be enough to go around and a belief that we must win at all costs. This theology of scarcity fuels White Supremacy. We are all captive to it until we are all free from it. 

Genesis 22:1-14, If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Testing

After these things God tested Abraham.
(Genesis 22:1a, NRSV)

Let me tell you some of the ways I have approached the story of the binding of Isaac. I have triangulated with the congregation against the text. I have rejected the notion of tests from God. I have preached it as a horror story, identifying with Isaac, not quite sure whether the villain should be Abraham for saying yes or God for demanding this sacrifice. 

The story makes me uneasy, but so do my previous attempts to interpret it. I continue to react against the idea that God would test Abraham this way, even if God planned to disrupt the events with a ram in the thicket. This demand from God is a violent swerve away from the path set out for Abraham and his descendants. How can they be like stars in the sky if his son will be sacrificed? (And why allow Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away if this was going to happen?)

If I were preaching this week, I would name the discomfort of the story and try to bring the listeners into sympathy with Abraham’s position if not his decision. Think how we might struggle if asked to do something that not only went against our hopes for the future but upended our understandings of, and with, God. 

Look how we are struggling right now.

The brief text from the gospel this week concludes the instructions of Jesus to the disciples as he sends them out to represent him. He has warned them that they will not be universally well-received, that his message will set family members against one another, that they must lose their lives in order to find them. They are bringing a counter-cultural message, and we can’t help but remember that the reward most prophets receive is persecution, not popularity. 

The test before us is multi-layered. It goes against our hopes for the future and our past understandings of who God wants us to be. We cannot count on our usual practices to carry us through a time of grief and uncertainty. We’re reconfiguring, adapting, and reinventing. We cannot rest on our comfortable assumptions that politics and the church have nothing to do with each other. We are learning what our power is, and what it is not, and also where it may be used for God’s good purposes and where it has been used in the past against that purpose. We must examine the texts (see Romans) handed down to us and interrogate our use of words that do not mean the same thing today — or the same thing to everyone who hears them. 

The test the church is facing in our time is like the test God set for Abraham. It is like the test Jesus set for the disciples. Are we willing to risk our lives and our legacy to be faithful to God? 

The answer must lie not solely in our personal piety but in our collective commitments. 

If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

The stories we tell ourselves

He looked up and saw three men standing near him.
When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them,
and bowed down to the ground.
(Genesis 18:2)

My oldest son has been staying with us since May 4th, although by staying with us I mean he is staying in the church’s Youth Center next door. The night he arrived after driving across country, he pulled up in front and got out of the car with his old man dog, Baxter, and I stood at a safe distance even though I wanted to run to meet him.  My impulses of love and hospitality felt garbled as we put safety above embracing. 

I expect it’s a story we will keep telling for the rest of our lives. 

We just ordered this book.

Since my son finished a two week quarantine, his comings and goings are part of our family routine, as if he were just going to the next room instead of next door. We haven’t spent more than a few days together at a time since he graduated from college in 2008, so it’s both a gift and an anomaly to have his voice, in person, as part of an ongoing conversation that ranges from whether to play Catan or Code Names, to presidential politics and the pandemic, to protests against the police and How to Be an Antiracist. I’m mindful that it’s easier to have these conversations among people whose beliefs are mostly in alignment. The stories we tell ourselves rise from the same foundation, allowing us to grapple with the hard parts (reform? defund? abolish?) in a space of mutual trust. 

Then we pick up our phones and see what the rest of the world is saying. A coworker of my daughter’s complains that masks will restrict her freedom. My Black friends and colleagues remind me rightly that my repentance and prayers are not the same thing as acts of reparation. And of course some news sources highlight looting while others focus their reporting on police brutality. We must choose which arguments to enter, which exhortations to embrace, and which version of truth to receive. 

In both Genesis and the longer selection from Matthew, this week’s lectionary texts point us to who and what we welcome. Abraham runs to greet the three strangers, but Sarah is dubious about the news they bring. Jesus warns his disciples that some people will reject the message they bring:

If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. (Matthew 10:13-14)

While most of the sermons I have preached on this gospel text have emphasized sending the listeners out to share the good news, it might be worth considering ourselves in the place of the ones receiving the word.  

  • What stories are we telling ourselves?
  • What are we afraid to hear?
  • What are the beliefs we hold so deeply that we don’t even notice we have them?
  • How are we closing the door on God’s messengers?
  • Do we really believe that things can change?

Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

Keep listening, even when the messengers tell you something that is hard to hear. I promise that I will, too.